Common Obstacles on the Spiritual Path – How to Transcend Them
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, or aphorisms, have been looked upon for millennia as yoga’s definitive scripture. The aphorisms outline the steps the truthseeker must follow to transcend ego-consciousness and attain enlightenment, and also the obstacles that stand in his way.
If we look at these obstacles all together, we see that all of them, except the first, relate to mental weaknesses. Essentially, even disease is harmful to the meditator on a mental level, especially. But let us take these obstacles one by one.
Disease, I have said, is not only physical but also mental. If one has trouble breathing, however, then certainly he cannot practice breathing exercises as well as he should.
But the pain of disease, the weakness that accompanies it, the discomfort it inflicts on the mind—all these distractions make meditation, or even peace of mind, very difficult to achieve. It is important, therefore, for the yogi to keep himself fit and healthy.
Many spiritual seekers, however, devote altogether too much energy to the health of their physical bodies. The body comes last in importance beside the importance of developing a right attitude, and the need to keep the thought of God uppermost in the mind.
There is also the simple fact that illness, and diseases of all kinds, may come to us as a means of helping us to burn up our past karma. Those who seek God sincerely are often afflicted with such physical tests.
Dullness, of course, is primarily if not entirely mental, and is a quality of tamas, characterized by a general lack of interest in things. Temporary dullness, at one time or another, afflicts most people. It can be overcome by will power.
I remember many years ago being afflicted, not by dullness so much as a spirit of rebellion. I simply refused to meditate. I remember lying on my bed and reading Shakespeare—almost sensuously enjoying the flow of words! You can’t keep your nose constantly to the grindstone. A little relapse into dullness is not necessarily bad, so long as you know from the beginning that it will be temporary.
If your mind feels dull, therefore, see it as a brief relapse. But if the sickness is more persistent, make it a point, first, to seek out positive, energetic company. Don’t give in to what amounts to a spiritual disease. Exert your will power to make an energetic push for at least a few minutes at a time, until you find yourself climbing out of that mud pit. I have seen too many devotees allow dullness to pull them down so deep into sloth that it became a permanent return to worldly consciousness.
Doubt is one of the worst obstacles. As Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “The doubter is the most miserable of mortals.”
Doubting is different when it is a positive means of ascertaining the truth about something. We may call this practice only questioning. Unless one questions a truth, how can he be sure he has truly understood it? I myself questioned my Guru on countless points, and I believe it deepened my understanding of his teachings.
Doubt as a spiritual obstacle, then, means to assume at the outset that a teaching is wrong. Such doubt is simply a bad habit, a mental tendency which prevents one from committing himself wholeheartedly to anything. The cure for such doubt is love. I myself once went through a period of doubting my Guru. It was my love for him that pulled me out of that valley of darkness.
Carelessness—the next obstacle—comes from not paying attention to what one is doing. This mental habit can be cured by finding a subject that particularly interests you, and then pursuing it intensely for as long as it holds your interest; then applying yourself in the same way to another subject—each time, to only one subject at a time.
Laziness (when it is not merely tamasic, in which case it cannot rightly be called an obstacle, for one is not even interested in trying to uplift himself) is the inertia that impedes a person’s attempts to progress. He wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Oh, let me lie here just a little longer, before getting up to meditate.” Or he thinks, “It would be good to discipline myself, but let me just wait until tomorrow!”
To overcome this bad tendency, he must exert his will to cry, “No!” and cry (out loud, if necessary!), “I’ll begin this very moment!” A little effort is all it takes. Bit by bit, he’ll find himself climbing resolutely out of that otherwise ever-widening pit.
Sensuality (the next obstacle) is, Yogananda said, “the greatest delusion.” Reflect mentally on the moods and unhappiness that follow every indulgence in it. It is an insult to your soul to believe that, to be happy, you need the sensation of being touched physically. You are not this body! Sensuality is physically and mentally debilitating. It robs one of all finer sensitivity.
The way to overcome sensuality is resolutely to affirm freedom from all bodily imperatives. Even when forced by past habit to succumb to sensuality, mentally say, “I am not succumbing to this exercise in futility.” And every time one fails, he should never say, “I have failed.” He should affirm, rather, “I have not yet succeeded.”
False perception, the next obstacle, is a debility more common than many imagine. A person meditates many hours a day, and someone else tells him, “You’re shirking your duties.” But what is his true duty if not to seek God? One person addresses another with unnecessary harshness, and when scolded for having done so replies, “But shouldn’t we be truthful?”
False perception can be overcome best of all by strict self-truthfulness. In the first case, you may indeed be shirking valid responsibilities out of laziness, in which case you should work more, and meditate a little less. And in the second case, to be truly truthful is also to be kind to others.
Missing the point
Missing the point, the next obstacle, means allowing problems of the moment to make one forget why he embarked on the spiritual path in the first place. A co-worker, for example, may “get his goat.” Instead of remaining centered and peaceful, he loses his temper. Or someone proposes a venture that will surely bring him financial profits and he embraces it eagerly.
There is nothing wrong with making a legitimate profit if one so desires, but that word eagerly spells danger for the devotee. To miss the point is to forget why and what you are doing, in seeking God.
Instability is a threat to the equanimity that everyone should develop on the spiritual path. It is a good practice for the devotee to develop even-mindedness.
Imagine the worst calamity that could befall you, and mentally accept it with a smile. Imagine the greatest good fortune that could attend you, and tell yourself, “All things are born of duality. Good fortune today is certain to result in ill fortune—if not tomorrow then in a week, a month, or, inevitably, sooner or later. I will not identify myself with either good or ill.”
Backsliding happens when people’s devotion diminishes. When you feel tempted to go back to former ways of living, reflect mentally on all the reasons that brought you to the spiritual path to begin with.
The world will be no better, if you go back to its ways now. Rather, you will constantly regret what you have abandoned—the peace of meditation; the joy of seeking the only truth there is; the fellowship of uplifting friends, men and women with noble, worthy ideals.
Accompanying the foregoing obstacles on the path are specific physical and mental disturbances. These are moodiness, despair, nervous agitation, and agitated breathing.
Moodiness is a temptation of Satan, the fruit of sense-indulgence in the past. It cannot be reasoned away. Moodiness depends on the level at which one’s energy is centered in the spine. The best solution to irrational, dark moods is to change one’s level of consciousness: Concentrate deeply at the point between the eyebrows. Even a few minutes of this practice may suffice to drive the darkest moods away.
Despair is usually due to some outer misfortune. A person may suddenly lose his job, his fortune—indeed, everything in life that he has considered meaningful. It is not unusual for people in this predicament to commit suicide. And what a final disaster, to cap all the others! Those who resort to the “way out” of killing themselves face the burden of having to experience a similar disaster again, with the added burden of seeing themselves already in the role of failure. It may take them incarnations to climb out of that pit.
The way out of despair is to know that everyone has the divine flame burning within him. Know that no one is ever completely destroyed. One may have a very heavy load of past karma to bear –– maybe he was a wealthy stockbroker who brought financial disaster to millions. Even so, at his center, he remains forever the unchanging Atman, the divine Self.
That spark of divinity within him will make him want to correct past wrongs. Beneath even the greatest despair there lurks—strange as it may seem!—a certain gratitude; an awareness that one had that debt to pay, and that he has now done something, at least, to expiate his wrongs of the past.
Nervous agitation and agitated breathing
Nervous agitation brings on physical tension, restlessness, muscle cramping, and bodily pain. Agitated breathing is usually a sign of mental distress. Fear, anxiety, agitated hope—these are among the main causes for the breath’s becoming agitated.
All of these discomforts can be relieved, or eliminated, by deep relaxation. Be calm within, no matter what happens to you. Allow nothing to affect your peace of mind.
How do we rise above the common obstacles on the path and their accompanying physical and mental disturbances?
The practice of one-pointed concentration at the spiritual eye between the eyebrows, the seat of superconsciousness, is the best way to rise above both the obstacles and the physical and mental disturbances that accompany them. The more we concentrate at that center, the more we feel drawn to it, toward a state of egolessness, and toward a release of the ego-centered vrittis in the spine.
One-pointed concentration at that center causes delusions and imperfections to vanish before the dawn of absolute awareness.
Related reading: The Art & Science of Raja Yoga by Swami Kriyananda
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